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On the Power of Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger

Ramin Bahrani’s “The White Tiger,” which is now on Netflix and played Ebertfest in April 2022, is a biting social drama about one opportunistic hero willing to do anything to climb up from his poor social position. Gradually revealing his envy and anger through the story, the movie gives us a sharply insightful tale about the social inequality prevalent inside Indian society, and we come to observe its hero with more fascination even as we are disturbed by his amoral journey.

The movie begins with Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) writing a letter to a certain prominent Chinese politician about to visit India in 2010; Balram's voiceover tells us about his miserable childhood years in a small poor rural village in Laxmangarh. One day, young Balram impresses a visiting government official as one of the smarter kids in his school and is delighted to get a chance for better education as a result. However, because he was expected to earn more money for his big family just like his older brother, he is forced to quit his school and then work at a shabby teahouse, his first taste of the harsh reality surrounding him and many others in the village.

Several years later, Balram is still stuck in the same occupation with no bright future. But then he comes across a golden opportunity when the wealthy landlord of the village, nicknamed “The Stork” (Mahesh Manjrekar), drops by the village. The Stork happens to be accompanied by his two sons, and it turns out that the Stork’s younger son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who recently returned to India along with his Indian-American wife Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), needs someone to drive him and his wife. After managing to persuade his callous, pennywise grandmother to give him some money for a quick driving lesson, Balram promptly goes to a nearby city where the Stork and his family reside. He’s soon hired.

After that point, the movie smoothly moves along as our hero solidifies his status inside the Stork’s family. The Stork and his older son, a bully as mean and cruel as his father, often disregard Balram while ordering him to do other things besides driving. But Ashok and Pinky try to be nice and cordial to Balram, though they sometimes show unintentional condescension to him due to the class gap. Balram does not mind this much because he does not want to go back to his poor family, and he certainly hopes to upgrade his social status via his rich employers someday.   

But Balram is also well aware of how hopelessly he and many other poor working-class people are trapped from the beginning by class division and inequality. For example, a certain prominent local politician turns out to be as corrupt as many other politicians, and the Stork and his family are ready to hand their dirty money to the opponent party when that politician’s blatant demand for more bribery is deemed too much for them. When Ashok and his wife later go to Delhi for his family business matters, Balram accompanies them, and he is amazed by how big and exciting Delhi is. But Balram only stays in the underground parking lot along with many other private drivers, while Ashok and his wife stay in a big and luxurious hotel room. In addition, he's often disregarded by his fellow private drivers just because of his rural background, and that makes him more discontent and frustrated about his current social status. 

And then, as already shown to us at the very beginning of the film, something quite serious happens. I will not go into much detail, but the incident opens Balram's eyes to the sobering truth about his relationship with his employers. He continues to work for them, but he also becomes more cynical than before, and starts taking advantage of them to attain what he has yearned for years. The movie, which is based on the novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, then accumulates more tension on-screen from Adarsh Gourav’s quietly intense performance. Although Balram is not a very good person, he is still quite a compelling human figure, and Gourav’s nuanced acting palpably conveys to us Balram’s longtime hunger and ambition without making any excuse at all. 

One notable weak aspect of the film is that its supporting characters are broad stereotypes, though its supporting performers are at least well-cast. Mahesh Manjrekar and Vijay Maurya are suitably deplorable in their respective supporting roles, but Rajkummar Rao's performance as Ashok is often limited by an under-developed character despite his efforts. I also wish the movie delved more into his character’s complicated relationship with Balram. In the case of Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who also served as one of the executive producers of the film, her character unfortunately ends up being no more than a mere plot element, which is a shame considering how she brings a little extra perspective to the movie as another outsider figure in the story (besides Balram).

There are also several other flaws, including a finale that arrives too quickly, but “The White Tiger” holds our attention to the end thanks to Bahrani’s skillful direction. After he drew my attention via his first three feature films “Man Push Cart” (2005), “Chop Shop” (2007), and “Goodbye Solo” (2008), Bahrani impressed me further with his next two films “At Any Price” (2012) and “99 Homes” (2014), confirming that he is one of the most interesting American filmmakers at present. Although it's more conventional compared to most of his previous films, “The White Tiger,” which garnered him his first Oscar nomination after Netflix released it in early 2021, is still worth a watch because he tries something different here. I admired its strong parts more when I recently revisited it.   

The movie maintains a non-judgmental attitude toward its hero, but it eventually makes a barbed point during its last shot, which lingers in my mind. After finally getting everything he wanted so much, Balram cheerfully boasts about it to the camera, but he seems to forget one thing he should not overlook at any point. There are millions of people as hungry and scrappy as he once was, and some of them may be looking at him and his glittering success right now. After all, if a petty common man like him could succeed like that, why not them?

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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